To help us launch It’s A Free Country, we reached out to politicians, academics, cultural thinkers, and activists to help us define our mission. The question we asked is simple: “What’s Broken in Politics, and How Do We Fix It?” This is Mark Alexander's answer.
I've been asked to help kick-off this new website and to answer the question: "What's Broken in Politics and How Do We Fix It?" Well, maybe this isn't what the good folks at WNYC want, but I'm gonna reject their premise. You see, they assume through the question that politics is broken and needs fixing. I think not.
Politics can be messy. Politics can be unpredictable. And so it is right now. I would say that we are running through a messier-than-usual period in politics. Everyone is feeling it. The Republicans are a mess. The Democrats have power, but our nation is suffering through a major economic downturn; in power, the Democrats are getting beat up and blamed. President Obama is feeling the heat from inside and outside his Party. Individual candidates are reeling. The parties are losing much of their grip on the voters. But this doesn't mean politics is broken. Messy, yes; broken, no.
Our nation is built on the premise that politics and the government belong to we the people. And we can look back throughout our nation's history to see that we constantly struggle as a people to gain control over our politics. At the same time, as the people surge and push, those in power confront the question of how to maintain their own control. So right now, the people in power are facing a major challenge. Being an incumbent is not what it used to be. Political parties don't have the same stronghold as they used to. But in many ways, this is just politics and ordinary squabbling.
Politics is one thing, but having an impact through actual governance is another. That's where the problem lies.
The nature of change in a representative democracy requires cooperation. The ways of Washington at present seem to be heavily influenced by the politics of obstructionism, often masked as grassroots populism. From my perspective outside Washington, there does not seem to be consensus on the importance of cooperation and just getting things done. It looks like everyone wants to fight for political gain.
In that sense, politics is hurting governance. Barack Obama wanted to change that culture. But that work will take a long time - longer than one term, and longer than a second, if he is re-elected. He is right to push for greater civility, and this is a chance to move us forward for the long term. But it won't just be Obama's work, but that of future presidents and elected officials for many years to come.
As we move forward toward the midterm congressional elections, the key question is what sort of leadership will November's winners bring to Washington? With so many people now clamoring to be the one who is most anti-Washington and anti-establishment, what will that mean once they get there? Will the newcomers do more than simply say that they are outsiders who came to change the ways of Washington? Will they do more than just say no?
Here's the news for all those candidates who claim to be outsiders and anti-Establishment: if you win, you will become part of the Establishment. You will no longer be outside the system. That will be a big challenge, for all candidates, and perhaps for President Obama as well.
It doesn't mean that they will have to do things the way they have always been done before, but being elected carries an obligation to do things and to move things forward in a positive direction. It means moving forward in ways that break through the partisanship. Sometimes there's common ground. Sometimes there's a majority whose will must be accommodated. And sometimes there are matters of deep principle that cannot be compromised.
For politicians of all political stripes, that is the challenge.
We have an historic opportunity to build on a movement that is sweeping across the country at the grassroots level. We can build something greater than ever before, but it will require putting governance and true leadership ahead of posturing and politics.
Mark Alexander is a Professor at Seton Hall University in Newark, New Jersey, specializing in constitutional law and the First Amendment. He was a Senior Advisor for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.